Local Knowledge in the Age of Information1

Local Knowledge in the Age of Information1

Berry, Wendell

In 1983, reviewing a book of agricultural essays by Wes Jackson and one by me, Lewis Hyde suggested that our two books were part of an effort of the periphery to be heard by the center. This has stayed in my mind as perhaps the most useful thing that has been said about my agricultural writing and that of my allies. It is useful because the dichotomy between center and periphery does in fact exist, as does the tendency of the center to be ignorant of the periphery.

These terms appear to be plain enough, but as I am going to use them here they may need a little clarification. We can say, for example, that a land grant university is a center with a designated periphery which it is supposed to maintain and improve. Or an industrial city is a center with a periphery which it is bound to influence and which, according to its politics and its power, it may either conserve or damage. Or a national or a state government is a center solemnly entrusted with responsibility for peripheral places, but in general it extends its protections and favors to the commercial centers, which outvote or out-“contribute” the periphery. But above all, now, as a sort of center of centers, is the global “free market” economy of the great corporations, the periphery of which is everywhere, and for its periphery this center expresses no concern and acknowledges no responsibility.

The global economy is a development-it is intended apparently as the culmination-of the technological and commercial colonialist orthodoxy that has dominated the world increasingly since the Renaissance, the principle of the orthodoxy being that any commercial entity is entitled to wealth according to its power. A center, then, as I will use the term, is wherever the wealth, power, and knowledge of this overbearing economy have accumulated. Modern technology, as it has developed from oceanic navigation to the World Wide Web, has been increasingly a centralizing force, enabling ever larger accumulations of wealth, power, and knowledge in an ever smaller number of centers.

Since my concern here is with the need for communication-or, as I would prefer to say, conversation-between periphery and center, I must begin with the center’s characteristic ignorance of the periphery. This, I suppose, must always have been so, even of the market towns of the world before the Renaissance. But in that older world, the cities and towns mostly (though with some significant exceptions) could take for granted that their tributary landscapes were populated by established rural communities that knew both how to make the land produce and how to take care of it.

It is still true that the center is supported by the periphery. All human economy is still land-based. To the extent that we must eat and drink and be clothed, sheltered, and warmed, we live from the land. The idea that we have now progressed from a landbased economy to an economy based on information is a fantasy.

It is still true also that the people of the center believe that the people of the periphery will always supply their needs from the land and will always keep the land productive: There will always be an abundance of food, fiber, timber, and fuel. This too is a fantasy. It is not known but is simply taken for granted.

As its power of attraction increases, the center becomes more ignorant of the periphery. And under the pervasive influence of the center, the economic landscapes of the periphery have fewer and fewer inhabitants who know them well and know how to care properly for them. Many rural areas are now populated mostly by urban people.

In the New York Review of Books of March 24, 2005, Clifford Geertz wrote that tsunamis and other large-scale disasters threaten “the conviction that perhaps most reconciles many of us . . . to our own mortality: that, though we ourselves may perish, the community into which we were born, and the sort of life it supports, will somehow live on.” But except for a few of the better-established Amish communities, this conviction is an illusion; one cannot imagine how Mr. Geertz has held onto it. No matter even if “we” have stayed put geographically, if we are over thirty, or maybe even twenty, the community in which we live is by now radically unlike “the community in which we were born.” In fact, there are now many people whose native communities have not only been radically changed but have been completely destroyed by some form of “development.” Since the end of World War II, the economic, technological, and social forces of industrialism have pretty thoroughly disintegrated the rural communities of the United States and, I believe, of other parts of the world also, inducing in them a “mobility” that has boiled over in the cities, disintegrating them as well.

The loss of the old life of the rural communities has usually been written off as an improvement, and only sometimes lamented. Nowhere that I know has it been more knowingly and poignantly lamented than in Ernest J. Gaines’s novel, A Gathering of Old Men, set on a sugar cane plantation in Louisiana. Here the man named Johnny Paul is speaking for the community of black field hands that he knew as a growing boy:

Thirty, forty of us going out in the field with cane knives, hoes, plows-name it. Sunup to sundown, hard, miserable work, but we managed to get it done. We stuck together, shared what little we had, and loved and respected each other.

But just look at things today. Where the people? Where the roses? Where the four-o’clocks? The palm-of-Christians? Where the people used to sing and pray in the church? I’ll tell you. Under them trees back there, that’s where. And where they used to stay, the weeds got it now, just waiting for the tractor to come plow it up.

You had to be here then to be able to don’t see it… now. But I was here then, and I don’t see it now … I was scared . . . one day that tractor was go’n come in there and plow up them graves, getting rid of all proof that we ever was. Like now they trying to get rid of all proof that black people ever farmed this land with plows and mules -like if they had nothing from the starten but motor machines. . . . Mama and Papa worked too hard in these fields. They mama and they papa worked too hard in these same fields. They mama and they papa people worked too hard, too hard to have that tractor just come in that graveyard and destroy all proof that they ever was. I’m the last one left.

This too is part of an effort of the periphery to be heard by the center.

Johnny Paul’s speech, of which I have quoted only a part, is obviously eloquent and as deeply moving as he is deeply moved, but still we are left with the question: Was what he was lamenting actually lamentable? To begin to answer that question, we have to answer another: Was what those people knew about their place of any value to their place and to people in other places? Or, to state the question a little more thematically, is there a practical reason for the periphery to be heard by the center?

Insofar as the center is utterly dependent upon the periphery, its ignorance of the periphery is not natural or necessary, but is merely dangerous. The danger is increased when this ignorance protects itself by contempt for the people who know. If the most intimate knowledge of the land from which you live belongs to people whom you consider to be provincials or field niggers or hillbillies or hicks or rednecks, then you are not likely ever to learn very much.

Furthermore, the danger increases as the periphery is enlarged; the vulnerability of long supply lines is well understood. To give the most obvious example, the United States has chosen (if that is the right word) to become an import-dependent society rather than to live principally from its own land and the work of its own people, as if dependence on imported goods and labor can be consistent with political independence and self-determination. This inconsistency is making us, willy-nilly, an imperial power, which perhaps increases “business opportunities” for our government’s corporate sponsors, but certainly increases our fragility and our peril. The economic independence of families, communities, and even regions has now been almost completely destroyed.

Far from caring for our land and our rural people, as we would do if we understood our dependence on them, we have not, as a nation, given them so much as a serious thought for half a century. I read, I believe, my full share of commentary on politics and economics by accredited experts, and I can assure you that you will rarely find in any of them even a passing reference to agriculture or forestry. Our great politicians seem only dimly aware that an actual country lies out there beyond the places of power, wealth, and knowledge. The ultimate official word on agriculture seems to have been spoken by Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, who told the farmers to “Get big or get out.”

A predominantly urban population that is contemptuous of the working people of the farms and forests cannot know enough about the country to exercise a proper responsibility for its good use. And ignorance in the center promotes ignorance on the periphery. Knowledge that is not properly valued decreases in value, and so finally is lost. It is not possible to uproot virtually the whole agricultural population by economic adversity, replacing it with machines and chemicals, and still keep local knowledge of the land and land use at a high level of competence. We still know how to make the land produce, but only temporarily, for we are losing the knowledge of how to keep it productive. Wes Jackson has written and often said that when the ratio of eyes to acres in agricultural landscapes becomes too wide, when the number of caretakers declines below a level that varies from place to place but is reckonable for every place, then good husbandry of the land becomes impossible.

The general complacency about such matters seems to rest on the assumption that science can serve as a secure connection between land and people, designing beneficent means and methods of land use and assuring the quality and purity of our food. But we cannot escape or ignore the evidence that this assumption is false.

There is, to begin with, too great a gap between the science and the practice of agriculture. This gap is inherent in the present organization of intellectual and academic life, and it formalizes the differences between knowing and doing, the laboratory or classroom and the world. It is generally true that agricultural scientists are consumers rather than producers of agricultural products. They eat with the same freedom from farmwork, weather, and the farm economy as other consumers, and perhaps with the same naive confidence that a demand will dependably call forth a supply.

Moreover, the official agriculture of science, government, and agribusiness has been concerned almost exclusively with the ability of the land to produce food and fiber, and ultimately salaries, grants, and profits. It has correspondingly neglected its ecological and social responsibilities, and also, in many ways, its agricultural ones. It has ignored agriculture’s continuing obligations to be diverse, conservative of its means, and respectful of its natural supports.

The assumption that science can serve as an adequate connector between people and land, and thus can effectively replace the common knowledge and culture of local farm communities, by now has the status of an official program-though the aim of science, more often than not, is to connect capital with profit. The ascendancy of the expert involves a withdrawal or relinquishment of confidence in local intelligence-that is, in the knowledge, experience, and mental competence of ordinary people doing ordinary work. The result, naturally, is that the competence of local intelligence has declined. We are losing the use of local minds at work on local problems. The right way to deal with a problem, supposedly, is to summon an expert from government, industry, or a university, who will recommend the newest centrally-devised mechanical or chemical solution. Thus capital supposedly replaces intelligence as the basis of work, just as information supposedly replaces land as the basis of the economy.

This would be fine, of course, if the recommended solutions were in fact solving the problems. But too often they not only fail to solve the problems, they either make them worse or replace them with new problems. And so, as we continue our enterprise of “sound science” and technological progress, our agriculture becomes more and more toxic, specialized, and impoverished of genes, breeds, and varieties; we deplete the aquifers and the rivers; our rural communities die; our fields and our food become less healthful; our food supply becomes ever more dependent on long-distance transportation and immigrant labor; our water becomes less drinkable; the hypoxic zone grows in the Gulf of Mexico.

These calamities of industrial agriculture define our need to take seriously Wes Jackson’s insistence that we need a farm population large, alert, and skilled enough, not just to make the land produce, but to take the best possible care of it as well. At present, we are so far from this goal that a number of depopulated rural communities in the prairie states are offering free land and other economic incentives to new settlers.

But we need to consider the possibility that even our remnant farm population possesses knowledge and experience that is indispensable in a rapidly urbanizing world. The center may need to pay attention to the periphery and accept its influence simply in order to survive. I have at hand three testimonials to the value of peripheral knowledge, and remarkably they all come from scientists. The first is from Robert B. Weeden, a biologist and writer who has done much of his work in Alaska:

If science took on a regional/local focus, one result would be that, for the first time in 3 centuries, the gap between scientist and citizen would start to close. . . . [W]hat we would see is that the conduct of critiqued experiment (science) and the close observation of unfolding life (common sense) would form a team. I watched this notion be born and begin its childhood in Alaska’s north. Scientists, newcomers from the south, were hired by federal agencies and oil corporations to find out something about the environments in which petroleum exploration and production would occur. Time was scarcer than money. Some of the scientists had enough casual conversation with Inuit and Yupik people to realize that if you wanted guides to the seasonal behavior of sea ice and its inhabitants, local people were far better sources than the thin and inadequate records of earlier scientists. The informal conversation grew into formal conferences, funding, and ongoing committees. To be honest, government and corporate motives were mixed, because, in addition to knowing something, native people also controlled access to places the oil folk wanted to explore. Nevertheless, two systems of knowledge did come together.

My second witness is the geographer Carl Sauer, who wrote:

If I should move to the center of the mass I should feel that the germinal potential was out there on the periphery.

And, finally, I offer a rather emphatic statement from the biologist Roger Payne’s book, Among Whales:

[A]ny observant local knows more than any visiting scientist. Always. No exceptions.

That the center at present is ignorantly dependent on the periphery does not suggest that the center is somehow inherently worthless. It is not. The periphery needs a center, just as a center needs a periphery. One is unthinkable without the other. The center collects and stores things of value. It is a place of economic and cultural exchange. It is the right place for a stockyard or a university. The distinction I am working toward is that between an ignorant center and one that is properly knowledgeable, and also that between an ignorant periphery and one that is properly knowledgeable. The critical point is that to be properly knowledgeable each must be in conversation with the other. They must know the truth of their interdependence; they must know what they owe to each other.

To speak of a need for knowledge, I know, is to put oneself in danger of being run over by the information economy and the communications industry hastening to the rescue with computers, data banks, PA systems, photocopiers, leaflets, and Power Point projectors. Despite my reputation as a Luddite, I don’t want to say that the information economy is useless, but I would like to say several things meant to burden it and slow it down, and (let us hope) improve it.

First, let us consider how we have degraded this word information. As you would expect, in-form-ation in its root meaning has to do with the idea of form: a pattern, structure, or ordering principle. To in-form is to form from within. Information, in this sense, refers to teaching and learning, to the formation of a person’s mind or character. But we seem to be using the word now almost exclusively to refer to a random accumulation of facts, all having the one common characteristic of availability; they can, as we are too likely to say, be “accessed.” Sometimes they are available at little cost-from a public library, say, or an Extension Service bulletin. Sometimes they are available only as “intellectual property,” which is available at the seller’s price. At whatever cost this information is made available to its potential users, it arrives unformed and unexperienced. There is nothing deader or of more questionable value than facts in isolation.

And this exposes the problem of an information economy. The problem is in determining the value of the commodity, information being much harder to evaluate than real goods such as food, clothing, and shelter. The value of information is in its usefulness in manipulating, for better or worse, the natural world. If the result is “for better,” then the information can be accounted an asset; if “for worse,” then it must be booked as a liability, of less than no value. But until the information is shaped into knowledge in some particular mind and applied with or without harm to an actual place, we will not know whether or not it is an asset or how valuable an asset it is.

This warehousing of accessible information is obviously an activity of the center. Information of this sort is one of the commodities that the center collects and dispenses to the periphery. The center, as we now say, “communicates” with the periphery; the market or the factory or the university communicates with the countryside, by means of this information. Sometimes the information is sent out encoded in various kinds of technology, sometimes in printed instructions or reports, sometimes in radio or television broadcasts. And this communication is a connection between the center and the periphery.

But let us consider, secondly, that this is only half a connection. It is a one-way communication between an active sender and a passive receiver. This is why I said earlier that I prefer conversation to communication. Communication, as we have learned from our experience with the media, goes one way, from the center outward to the periphery. But a conversation goes two ways; in a conversation the communication goes back and forth. A conversation, unlike a “communication,” cannot be prepared ahead of time, and it is changed as it goes along by what is said. Nobody beginning a conversation can know how it will end. And there is always the possibility that a conversation, by bringing its participants under one another’s influence, will change them, possibly for the better. (Conversation, as I understand the term, refers to talk between or among people for their mutual edification. This excludes talk shows or call-in programs, which are commodities for consumption by a nonparticipating audience.)

Once we have proposed a conversation between center and periphery, we see immediately that what the periphery has to say to the center is critically different from what the center has to say, or at least from what it presently is saying, to the periphery.

The information that is accumulated at the center-at the corporate or academic or governmental end of the information economy-and then dispersed to the periphery, tends necessarily toward the abstract or universal, toward general applicability. The Holstein cow and the Roundup-ready soybean are, in this sense, abstractions: the artifacts of a centrally devised agriculture, in use everywhere without respect to place or to any need for local adaptation. When the periphery accepts these things uncritically, adopting the ideas and the language of the center, then it has begun to belong to the center, and usually at a considerable longterm cost to itself. The immediate cost is the loss of knowledge and language specific to localities.;,,

But the question we are trying to raise here is: How can the best work be done? Or: How can we give the best possible care to our highly variable economic landscapes, in which no two woodlands, no two farms, and no two fields are exactly alike? If we are ever to get the right answers to this question, then the people of the periphery will have to cultivate and cherish knowledge of their places and communities, which are always to some extent unique. This will be placed knowledge; out of place, it is little better than ignorance; and it is learnable only at home. To speak of it will require a placed language, made in reference to local names, conditions, and needs. Moreover, the people of the center need to know that this local knowledge is a necessary knowledge of their world. They need to hear the local languages with understanding and respect-no more talk about “hicks” and “provincials” and “rednecks.” A refined, discriminating knowledge of localities by the local people is indispensable if we want the most sensitive application of intelligence to local problems, if we want the best work to be done, if we want the world to last. If we give up the old orientation of agriculture to the nature of individual farms and fields, and reorient it to industry, industrial technology, and the global economy, then the result is uniformity, oversimplification, overspecialization, and (inevitably) destruction.

To use the handiest practical example, I am talking about the need for a two-way communication, a conversation, between a land grant university and the region for and to which it is responsible. The idea of the extension service should be applied to the whole institution. Not just the agricultural extension agents, but also the graduate teachers, doctors, lawyers, and other community servants should be involved. They should be carrying news from the university out into its region, of course. But this would be extension in two directions: They would also be carrying back into the university news of what is happening that works well, what is succeeding according to the best standards, what works locally. And they should be carrying back criticism also: what is not working, what the university is not doing that it should do, what it is doing that it should do better.

Communication is not necessarily cooperative. “Get big or get out” is a communication and hardly expectant of a reply. But conversation is necessarily cooperative, and it can carry us, far beyond the principle of competition, to an understanding of common interest. By conversation a university or a city and its region could define themselves as one community rather than an assortment of competing interests. Center and periphery, city and country, consumers and producers do not have to define themselves as economic adversaries. They can begin to be a community simply by asking: What can we do for each other? What do you need that we can supply you with or do for you? What do you need to know that we can tell you?

Once the conversation has started, it will quickly become obvious, I think, that there must be a common, agreed-upon standard of judgment; and I think this will have to be health: the health of ecosystems and of human communities.

There will have to be also a common idea, or hope, of economic justice. The operative principles here would be production controls, to prevent surpluses from being used as a weapon against producers; and fairness, granting to small producers and tradespeople the same marketing advantages as to large ones. And so good-bye to volume discounts.

My third point is that the means of human communication are limited, and that we dare not forget this. There is some knowledge that cannot be communicated by communication technology, the accumulation of tape-recorded “oral histories” notwithstanding. For what may be the most essential knowledge, how to work well in one’s place, language simply is not an adequate vehicle. To return again to land use as an example, farming itself, like life itself, is different from information or knowledge or anything else that can be verbally communicated. It is not just the local application of science; it is also the local practice of a local art and the living of a local life.

As farmers never tire of repeating, you can’t learn to farm by reading a book, and you can’t tell somebody how to farm. Older farmers I knew used to be fond of saying, “I can’t tell you how to do that, but I can put you where you can learn.” There is such a thing, then, as incommunicable knowledge, knowledge that comes only by experience and by association.

There is in addition for us humans, always, the unknown, things perhaps that we need to know that we do not know and are never going to know. There is mystery. Obvious as it is, we easily forget that beyond our sciences and our arts, beyond our technology and our language, is the irreducible reality of our precious world that somehow, so far, has withstood our demands and accommodated our life, and of which we will always be dangerously ignorant.

Our great modern powers of science, technology, and industry are always offering themselves to us with the suggestion that we know enough to use them well, that we are intelligent enough to act without limit in our own behalf. But the evidence is now rapidly mounting against us. By living as we do, in our ignorance and our pride, we are diminishing our world and the possibility of life.

This is a plea for humility.

1 Written and delivered originally as a speech for the conference “Globalization of Information: Agriculture at the Crossroads,” at the University of Kentucky, on May 17, 2005.

WENDELL BERRY’s essay in this issue is from The Way of Ignorance, to be published later this fall by Shoemaker & Hoard, publishers this year also of his most recent book of poems, Given.

Copyright Hudson Review Autumn 2005

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